In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Ingrid Persaud’s ‘The Sweet Sop’ is the winning entry from the Caribbean, and the overall winner of the 2017 prize. The story is also the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2018.
If is chocolate you looking for, and I talking real cheap, then you can’t beat Golden MegaMart Variety & Wholesale Ltd in Marabella. Think of a Costco boil down small small but choke up with goods from top to bottom. When me and Moms had that holiday in Miami by her brother we were always in Costco. But till they open a Costco in Trinidad go by Golden MegaMart. They does treat people real good. As soon as I reach they know I want at least thirty jars of Nutella chocolate spread. And don’t play like you giving me anything else. I tell them I have my reasons and that is what I want. But they always trying. Just last week you should hear them.
‘Eh, Slim Man, we get a nice chocolate. It just come out. Rocky Mallow Road. Why you don’t eat a good chocolate nah man instead of this chocolate in a bottle?’
‘Is Cadbury I talking about. Try one nah. On the house.’
‘Look don’t hurt me head with no foolishness. And hurry up. Man have taxi waiting.’
I never used to eat chocolate all the time so. If is anything, give me a pack of peanuts or green mango with salt and pepper. Anything salty and I in that. Everything changed when my old man Reggie died. Now the only thing I eat is sliced bread with Nutella. Moms think I am going mad. I might be going mad. That is a question for the doctor them to decide. But what is as true as Lara can play cricket is that I am getting fat. Man, let’s give Jack his jacket. I am enormous.
Computer work like I have mean you don’t need to leave the house. In fact, most of the people I work for operating the same way rather than in an office set up. To stop me and Moms getting all up in each other’s business, I turned the garage into a studio apartment as soon as I started working. I have my own toilet and bath and a small kitchen with a fridge. She is in the house proper but this way me and Moms don’t have to bounce up every day. I am not a man to take more than two-three little drink but you see that woman. Ah lord. When she start up with she stupidness I does want to take a rum straight from the bottle. Is always the same tune. Victor, this bread and chocolate thing is your father fault, god rest he soul. You should have followed my example and don’t have nothing to do with he. One minute you was a good looking, normal, young man and then that worthless devil sit on your head. Now look at you. You is one big booboloops. You forget how to reach the gym? I don’t understand what happen to you. You don’t go out. You only home eating this bread and chocolate morning, noon and night. Chocolate and bread, bread and chocolate, chocolate and bread. Watch me. Your heart can’t carry this size. Keep up this madness and you go be using a plot in Paradise Cemetery before me.
In a way Moms have a point. Is only after Reggie passed away that things got real dread. They say the Leukaemia take him. That is part of the truth. I know the other part. The truth about what happened the night Reggie died is something I taking with me to the grave.
You have to understand that I didn’t know Reggie much at all until the year before he passed. Growing up I could count the number of times I saw him on one hand. Somehow he used to know when big things were happening and show up. Like when I did Common Entrance, he reached in the school and gave me a blue note. One hundred dollars. He had on shades and I didn’t make him out. Then loud loud he was saying, ‘But eh, eh, Victor, how you don’t recognise your own father?’
I remember that because the whole class must be hear him and know all my business.
Another time he reached by the house after I got confirmed in the Cathedral of Our Lady Of Perpetual Help. Church not my thing but Moms say while I living under she roof I will learn some righteousness. Moms spot Reggie by the gate first. She shouted out for me to go and see what my father want but don’t let that stinking man put a foot in this house. Then she bawl out that if he ask for me tell him to haul his ass. That kind of bad mind was not Christian but I wasn’t saying boo. I am not that brave or that stupid. Reggie must have heard her because he stayed on the road. He gave me two hundred dollars and asked me how my studies going. According to Reggie, his family had brains in it except the brains run zig zag. He sure I get what he miss out. I think he was hoping I would become a big shot lawyer or doctor.
After that it was nearly six years I had to wait to hear from him. Don’t ask me what have him so busy for all that time. Moms let out one long steups when she find out he get in touch. It seems the man sick bad and wanted to see me.
‘Wash your foot and jump in if you want,’ she said. ‘You see me, as far as that man concern, I will never forgive his whore mongering and I will never ever forget what he do. He leave when you was three months. Three months. And now the Lord calling him home he want to spend time with you? Shame on he.’
It was my Auntie’s mouth that opened and made the story jump out. Moms found Reggie with the neighbour’s daughter and threw him out then and there. And Moms, being from Tobago, is not like she had much family to help her out. That is how strong she is. The young lady in question is none other than the woman with the bakery on Mucurapo Street. People say she does make nice Hops bread and she currants-roll sweet too bad. Me? I would rather starve than put my big toe in there. Mind you, whatever went on between she and Reggie didn’t last. She ended up with Mr Louchoo and that is how she get bakery. As for Reggie, he married to one good-looking lady name Kim. Go by Kenny Khan Bookstore and Variety Shop – is downstairs the big, green building in Cross Crossing. Kim is some kind of manager there.
The same Auntie who buss the mark is the one who tell me not to mind Moms and go see Reggie on he sick bed. If I don’t go, and the man dead, I might end up regretting that we didn’t talk. Not that he look overjoyed to see me when I reach. He was lying down on the couch. Reggie was never a big man but now you could see all his bones jooking out. His legs thin like two pencils and his face hollow. I said I heard he not doing any more treatment.
‘What I going to do that for? I have enough poison in my body.’
‘But it could make you better.’
‘How you know that? Like you is a doctor now?’
He had to stop and take deep breaths.
‘Look I tell you already. I done with all that hospital thing. They ain’t even sure it would help me now. Gopaul luck is not Seepaul luck. I take that treatment and I could end up seeing more trouble.’
Kim was nice. She looked a good bit younger than Reggie. What woman does see in old man I don’t know. She claimed she was always telling Reggie to invite me home by them. Reggie was right there watching me but he didn’t say much. I tried to ask him how he was doing and if there was anything I could help with. All I got back were gruff grunts and yes or no answers. After a while he ignored me completely and put on the sports channel. I stayed and watched TV with him for a good hour then I told them I have to make tracks before it get too dark. Kim gave me sweet bread straight from the oven to carry home. She say tell your mother is Kim sent it because the two of we don’t have no quarrel. I was by the front door before Reggie turned off the TV and looked up.
‘So when you coming back to see me?’
I moved the bag with the sweet bread from one hand to the next.
‘I might pass next week.’
‘Don’t give me a six for a nine. I is a dying man.’
‘You go see me.’
‘Make sure. I go be waiting.’
If Kim wasn’t right there I think I would have let go two bad words in he tail.
Lord Jesus, don’t get me started. But then I remembered that he is on his way out. If this heaven and hell thing is correct, then he going where no amount of air conditioning will keep him from burning up. Things have a way of levelling out.
The only slight problem with the levelling out business was that Reggie decided he was going to take his own cool time to pass. I ended up having to go Saturday after Saturday. If I didn’t go he would get Kim to call and ask me to come over. They don’t have much help so Kim needed me. Poor thing. She was either working or looking after him without a free five minutes. Reggie didn’t like nothing better than when was only me and he. He must have been an army general in a past life.
‘Victor, bring juice.’
I would bring the juice.
‘Oh lord this thing freezing cold. That is what you go bring for me?’
Two minutes later he would be hungry. Kim always left something on the stove – a little stew chicken or she nice corn soup.
‘I don’t care what she cook. I don’t want it. I want a boil egg and a piece of bread. You could boil egg? Don’t make the egg hard, hard.’
Of course the egg was always too soft or too hard. More than once, after I put it on a plate, he would push it aside claiming he was too tired to eat. It was not tiredness. It was bad mind stopping him. He enjoyed having me waiting on him like he was the king of Trinidad. A favourite of his was to ask for a glass of water and no matter how much water was in the glass he would complain and make me take it back.
‘Like you want to drown me? Give me a glass with half of that.’
Or I might get:
‘Well I never see more. You put water in this glass? Like water lock off?’
But you had to feel sorry for the man. Restless and in pain, Reggie would be walking up and down from the living room to the kitchen and outside patio. I never knew where I should be. To him I was always in the wrong place. I remember a day he was watching a test match – Pakistan v West Indies – and I was sitting on a chair to the side. All I did was lean forward to check out The Guardian newspaper and he started carrying on.
‘I know your father is not a glass maker so move from in front the TV.’
Another time his bad temper was for a bracelet I had on. He took one look and decided that it was a ladies’ band.
‘I didn’t know you is a batty man.’
I bit my lips and stayed cool.
‘Everybody wearing bracelet like this. Is the fashion.’
‘Well monkey see, monkey do.’
I good with that. Here you can still get locked up for being with a man. So, if people call you a dotish monkey, take it.
For a whole six months Reggie carried on with his army general thing barking orders at me even though he weakie weakie. I could not tell you when last he even walked outside the house. But the man still had fight in his spirit. He would point his bony finger in my face and say all you will have to wait. Is not time yet for Mahadeo Funeral Home. I kept wondering how long he would drag this out and why I was such a jackass to let myself get dragged in.
Then one Saturday he asked me to go buy him a chocolate. He was feeling for a Fruit and Nut bar. Now this was a man with stage four of the big C, plus high pressure and even higher sugar. I knew Kim didn’t keep anything like sweet biscuits or chocolates in the house. But Major Reggie wasn’t backing down.
‘Victor, I am dying. You hear that? I having to eat bread that the Devil he-self knead. A lil’ chocolate is all I begging for.’
What to do? You should have seen how he licked down that chocolate. Half a big bar was gone before he stopped to breathe.
‘How your mother?’
I nodded and made a noise to confirm she was fine.
‘Well you must tell she hello from me.’
I nodded again. His brains clearly not working good or else he would have known not to be sending Moms no hello.
‘Your mother ain’t easy, yes. She ever learn to cook?’
It was best to keep my mouth shut.
Reggie made sucking noises as he tried to clear the bits of dried fruit stuck between his teeth.
‘You want me to tell you what really went on between your mother and me?’
I looked up slightly. He was eyeing me good.
‘You mother didn’t understand that when you married you can’t keep running by this one and that one. What go on in a man house should stay in a man house. But your mother was always broadcasting we business to the marish and the parish. And when I tell she anything she would start up one set of quarrelling.’
I swallowed hard and looked down at my sneakers.
‘Two bo-rat can’t live in one hole. That is the truth.’
He chomped on a block of chocolate but just because his mouth was full didn’t stop him from running it.
‘Is a good thing I get out from under that woman and all she foolishness.’
I took out my phone and started checking emails. Reggie gave a little, mocking laugh.
‘Alright Victor, don’t listen. Believe what you want. But remember, you only know chapter. You don’t know the book.’
He scrunched up the purple chocolate wrapper and handed it to me.
‘Take that with you when you going. Kim go be real vex if she know you feeding me chocolate.’
No joke, some days I wished he would hurry up and die.
Instead, the memory of chocolate made the man crazy to see me. I became Reggie’s dealer. A voice on the phone would whisper, ‘Two Kit Kat,’ and hang up. The bathroom was a favourite hiding place. I could hear water falling in the background and then his voice hissing, ‘Snickers. King size.’ After a few weeks he say he easing back on the sugar so he only want Bournville Dark Chocolate. Who he fooling? Two days later he begging me please bring a Galaxy Caramel Bar. He can’t take the bitter taste. Then he had worries about the ingredients. I should bring something organic. When I told him the organic chocolate was real money he said forget that. We don’t know for sure if organic better and besides he going to dead soon.
This secret chocolate handover was our special sin. Everybody know that a little secret-sinning sweet too bad. If you don’t agree I know you lying through your teeth. In them sinning moments Reggie softened, forgot his constant pain and forgot to fight the big C. He even forgot to fight me. Plus something else happened. He would be eating a Bounty Bar or Hershey’s Kisses, and just so he would start giving me the lowdown on growing up in the countryside and leaving school with only a couple subjects. His parents thought he was a joker with no brains and he believed them. He said for years he felt like he lost his soul. But an uncle took him in and got him a place at the technical school in San Fernando. Reggie said that was a debt he could never fully repay. Since then he never wanted for work.
A Mars Bar (super size) helped Reggie’s take his mind off the reality that he was living full time in the bedroom now. Instead he talked about long time. He told me about meeting Moms – a story she never told me. Back in the day, Moms was working as a receptionist in an office he was rewiring.
‘In them days it didn’t have no Tinder hook-up business like what all you young people does do.’
He laughed at my shock.
‘You didn’t think I know what does go on these days?’
Reggie used to wait at the bus stand when Moms finished work 4 o’clock . They used to stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream – vanilla for her, chocolate for him. Reggie would take a chance and hold her hand or play footsie under the table. But he said they should never have married. Somebody should have talked some sense in them because they were too young.
‘Victor, that was a case of sweet in goat mouth but sour in the bam bam. One minute is love like dove but, before you could turn around twice, we was ready to kill one another.’
I got up and asked if he wanted some water to wash down the Mars Bar but he was far away.
Half hour later, when I was leaving, he still seemed lost.
‘Reggie, I heading out now.’
He looked up, his hollow face creased up with pain.
‘You could call me Dad you know.’
I breathed in hard. Reggie looked at the wall opposite then back at me.
‘You know, I wanted to ask you something. Why your mother never married again boy?’
‘It’s probably too late for she now. Mind you, she does still go to church every Sunday?’
‘It have plenty randy old timers that does go church and they not going to praise the Lord.’
By now I was helping Reggie bathe or cutting up his food and bribing him with the chocolate. While he nibbled on a Twix I told him about what I did and how I liked being my own boss. He didn’t understand computers and coding – not that he let that stop him.
‘Victor, it don’t matter if you does sweep the road or if you is prime minister. Once you could say, yes, I doing my best. Once you could say that, you go be a happy man.’
I was home eating left over macaroni pie and baked chicken when Kim called. The doctor had left having told Reggie that he should be in hospital or he would die quickly and in real pain. Reggie’s response had been to throw two cuss words at the doctor. He was not budging. Kim was sobbing and begging me to speak with him. I understood that this was a moment to come out strong. This was a Lindt moment. Even his wilfulness would melt with this fancy Swiss chocolate.
From the time Reggie refused the Lindt Excellence Extra Creamy chocolate bar I knew he was ready to close his eyes for good.
‘Reggie, you don’t know what you missing.’
He shut his eyes tight. It looked like he was trying not to cry.
‘Why you never once call me Dada or Daddy or something so?’
I felt like someone had pelted a cricket ball straight at my head and knocked me out. What was I supposed to say? Should I lie so the man could rest his soul in peace? What about me? Would my soul rest peacefully?
After one time is another and from that day Reggie went down fast fast. I tried giving him Nestle Butterfinger but he refused it. I brought him Crunchie. Same thing. I broke up a bar of Oh Henry to see if he would eat even a little piece but nothing doing. I tried Smarties, Milky Way, Aero Bar, Rolo, Charles Chocoloco, Twin and some others I can’t even remember the name of now. If they were selling it, I bought it, but not one of them made Reggie even give a smile.
In his final days I was practically living in their small house, sleeping on the couch. He wasn’t talking much. That did not stop him letting me know if he wanted something. Mr Army General was still there. I might be checking Facebook on my phone and suddenly feel a bony finger jab my leg. A hand taking an invisible cup to his lips meant bring water now. A pat of the mattress meant he was fed up on that side and I better turn him. There were no more stories about life in Cedros and running away from school to dip in the sea. I asked him to tell me again how he was caught thiefing Julie mango from a neighbour’s tree. Or the time he get licks for taking his father bicycle and going to a party when he should have been home sleeping. I wanted him to tell me again how he has only one picture of me – a bald baby in a sailor outfit. Tell me again how that picture never leave his mash-up wallet for the past twenty-four years.
The few times he did speak it was only about dying. He said he couldn’t talk to Kim because she was still hoping he would live to enjoy Christmas and the parang season. Reggie didn’t have the heart to say that this year she making black cake, sorrel and punch de crème by she-self. He begged to know if death itself, when you are actually about to die, if that was more pain. I lied as best I could.
He was always behind me to help him pass quickly. The first time he said it I wasn’t sure what he wanted.
‘You want some more painkillers Reggie?’
‘I want you to mash up all and give me with some water.’
‘You can’t swallow?’
‘I can’t give you more than the dose.’
‘Why? I begging you. Please. Let me go in peace.’
‘You will go in peace.’
Tears started dripping down his cheeks.
‘How you know that? You eh see how I suffering here? You should be helping me.’
‘Then let me carry you to the hospital.’
We had that same talk so many times I lost track. I ain’t lying. Seeing Reggie slipping away slow slow, and in so much pain, made me feel sick too. But life is life. He was asking me to make a jail for murder. Even if nobody ever find out I had to ask myself who I was doing this for. You know how many times I wished I could tell people my father dead? When you young that sounds cool instead of telling people my father ups and gone he way. But he not dead. He dying but he not dead and I didn’t know how long this dying thing could stretch out for. Whole day, whole night he was restless and crying. You know what it is to hear a big man bawling all the time?
Yet, in those hard, final days, chocolate Reggie sometimes slipped back in the groove.
I bent close.
‘I feel I go be the next Lazarus. What you think?’
He gave a feeble smile.
‘I go dead and then bam, get up from this bed and live out my days cool as anything.’
The doctor came to house a few times. He left strong pain tablets while still telling Reggie to go into hospital. Reggie said if anybody wanted him to leave 30B Hibiscus Drive they would have to wait till he in a coffin.
One night I was taking a sleep on the chair next to his bed when Reggie started jabbing my leg.
He shook his head then whispered.
‘I was dreaming about carnival.’
‘You were playing mas?’
‘Nah. I don’t think so. I was hearing a Mighty Sparrow calypso.’
He started to hum, ‘All them Tobago gyal …’
‘Sweet sweet sweet like a butterball. La la la la la.’
I joined in.
‘Anytime they call, I have to crawl, like a old football, I rolling straight to my Tobago gyal.’
I squeezed his hand.
‘Rest. Is the middle of the night.’
He began to cry softly.
‘I can’t take this no more. No more.’
I got up. I could see myself going to the kitchen, like I was following my body. I watched as I mashed up every painkiller I could find with a rolling pin. In a cup I mixed the white powder with Nutella.
He was still crying when I followed myself back into the bedroom.
‘Have some Nutella.’
He shook his head.
I took his hand and looked him straight in the eye.
‘Eat some chocolate nah.’
He didn’t move.
‘Daddy, is what you asked for.’
His eyes opened wide wide and I felt his hand squeeze mine.
‘Thank you son.’
Reggie blinked and more tears spilled down his cheeks.
‘Go catch a sleep on the couch, Victor. The longest day have an end.’
At the door I turned around for one last look. My dad was licking chocolate off the spoon bringing ease for him and, in time, for me.